Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Learning With Champions of Learning

February 24, 2021

Less than 15 minutes into the daylong “Champions of Learning” virtual conference hosted last week by colleagues in the ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter, I was already completely engaged and fully attentive.

This was a group that understood the importance of creating a welcoming tone and ambience at the beginning of any event, regardless of whether it is onsite or online. This was a group that didn’t overlook the small stuff behind any large, successful gathering. And this was a group that was using its commitment to engagement and interaction to be sure that participants would have few, if any, temptations to step away from “the room” before the event had reached its conclusion.

We often hear (and repeat) the idea that “the devil is in the details.” I would suggest that our ATD South Florida Chapter colleagues subscribe to the idea that “the angels are in the details,” and do everything they can to flood our virtual rooms with angels that beckon us to their gatherings. Those angels (volunteers, every one of them), during the weeks and days leading up to the conference, provided an appropriately steady stream of encouraging email messages designed to prepare participants—our co-conspirators in the learning process—for an event that focused on the content rather than the (virtual) setting and the technology needed to make that gathering successful. We were told that there would be a beginning-of-the-day session that included a “platform overview” for anyone wanting to explore the technology we would be using to interact with presenters/session facilitators as well as with each other. We knew the opening session would also give us plenty of time to interact with each other to, as much as possible, create the same levels of positive engagement we experienced at onsite gatherings before the shelter-in-place guidelines we have been following for nearly a year in response to the coronavirus pandemic pushed us completely into online interactions.

The series of pre-event email messages also included separate notes about each of the sessions, including the specific links we would follow to attend any of four breakout workshops and other events scheduled throughout the day; this gave us a chance to add those events and links to our own personal online calendars so, on the day of the event, we wouldn’t have to hunt through our archived email messages to find those direct links. And then, in an act that was possible because of the limited number of sessions, our “angels” resent those links, via email, shortly before each session began so that we could move directly from our email inboxes into the events. Recognizing that this would be an impossible and burdensome approach for organizers of much larger gatherings, I also recognize that this was yet another example of conference organizers thinking proactively of what they could do to make the virtual-conference experience—or any other online learning opportunity operating at a similar scale—as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

Opting for a morning workshop on “Awesome PowerPoint Tricks for Effective Presentations” (led by BrightCarbon Director Richard Goring) after the conclusion of the opening session/platform review, I was expecting to pick up a few tips on how to up my game in PowerPoint. To say that the nearly two-hour session exceeded expectations would be to unforgivably downplay the breadth and depth of what Goring offered all of us: an overwhelmingly positive and impressive overview of numerous tips and tricks that included demonstrations of what he was describing, and the all-important assurance that we would have plenty of opportunities to return to an archived recording of the session so we could more fully incorporate what he was describing into our own work, e.g., how to mask and highlight elements of an image to more effectively use that image on a slide; how to quickly align disparate elements and images on a slide with one command rather than a series of actions involving every separate element; and locating and using sites (including pexels.com, pixabay.com, and lifeofpix.com) that provide numerous free images we can incorporate into our work.

Elane Biech

For many of us, the anticipated high point of the day was the combination of a celebration of local (South Florida) colleagues’ work as champions of learning—those who, by example, remind the rest of us of what our most innovative colleagues are doing to make learning more engaging and transformative—and a keynote address by Elaine Biech, who has inspired many of us through her numerous books and other work in talent development (aka teaching-training-learning). Again, the chapter angels turned a challenge—having to move what is normally an onsite celebration into the online conference environment—into a “champions of learning” success story by having each nominee for the 2021 Champion of Learning awards provide a short, from-the-heart video describing the project. The result was a celebration within the main celebration—our celebration of how engagingly our colleagues embraced the video-presentation format to describe the successful projects so that we were as inspired by the playfulness of the videos as we were by the actual content.

And then there was Elaine: Warm. Engaging. Inspirational, as always. And right on target with a presentation and interactions with conference participants that reminded us of how to “Develop Your Best Self and Tale Charge of Your Career.” When it comes to your career, she reminded us at one point, don’t be beige; be brilliant. And develop your best self. Which is pretty much where she left us by the end of that session, as we headed into an afternoon of additional learning and interaction centered on the champions of learning among us.

Following Anne Beninghof into her “Caffeinated Virtual Training: How to Keep Your Audience Awake and Learning” session, I again learned as much observing a presenter’s approach to presenting virtually as I did from the rich content offered. It was as if she were somehow reaching cross-country from Florida to where I was sitting (in San Francisco) and knew just when to switch things up—as she did, approximately an hour into the session, by telling all of us to get out of our chairs, move away from our computers for a moment, and simply move around to keep from falling into a complete state of torpor from having been sitting in that country-wide learning space for several hours. That, and her focus on making everyone in the room a co-conspirator in learning, produced another memorably playful session and led us to the final two sessions—one for closing remarks and door prizes, the other a virtual happy hour that left us right where we started several hours earlier that day. Reminded that virtual conferences, when well designed and well executed, are no hindrance to fostering a sense of community and engagement. Reminded that spending time with our colleagues in online environments is, in and of itself, a learning opportunity we cannot afford to miss—particularly in pandemic, social-distancing times. And reminded that, when we observe and promise to build upon the positive experiences we have with our colleagues in online learning environments, we and the learners we serve are the real winners.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-ninth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences. 


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Training Trainers, Learning, and Victory Dances

May 6, 2020

There are obviously numerous buildings with “closed” signs on them as many of us continue to follow shelter-in-place guidelines in effect because of the coronavirus pandemic. But “closed” remains a relative term for many, e.g., libraries and other learning organizations, because the buildings may be closed, but the learning is continuing online. In offerings that sometimes are arranged so quickly that everyone’s head is spinning. And, sometimes, in offerings done effectively enough to leave learners with useful, memorable, engaging learning experiences that they can either immediately apply or can begin incorporating into learning opportunities with buildings once again sport open doors.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, through all of this, to have had several projects underway that were primarily set up as online learning experiences. And one that was scheduled to begin with a daylong series of onsite sessions (in Tampa, Florida) and then continue with three subsequent one-hour online sessions. That train-the-trainer course, for learning co-conspirators (aka “adult learners”) through the Tampa Bay Library Consortium, was charmed from the beginning. Our onsite time together in Tampa took place less than two weeks before shelter-in-place suddenly became an all-too-familiar experience and temporarily put on hold most face-to-face training sessions. The first of the three webinars was held a week after shelter-in-place went into effect, and offered us an opportunity to begin exploring what trainer-teacher-learners could—and have to—do when their world suddenly goes topsy-turvy and many long-held beliefs and expectations fly out the window in a rapidly, ever-evolving learning environment. And the final webinar, completed earlier today, brought us full circle through explorations of how to design and facilitate online, onsite, and blended learning opportunities—by engaging in onsite, online, and blended learning opportunities using whatever tools we have available.

Some things, we confirmed together through a highly-interactive and collaborative approach, remain constant at a time when “emergency remote learning” is all around us: Following a learning model such as ADDIE (Assess, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) and USER (Char Booth’s Understand, Structure, Engage, and Reflect) continues to provide strong foundations for effective learning. Preparation, flexibility, confidence, empathy, attention to detail, and humor all remain essential elements of what we do. Collaboration produces magnificent results, as we frequently saw when the learners were participants in shaping sessions in the moment; there were times when learners’ questions and suggestions inspired me to set aside activities I had planned and, on the spot, replace them with activities the participants themselves helped create and implement. And there were times when delivery/facilitation of a session changed on a dime, as when a slide deck I had planned to use for the first webinar wasn’t loading properly through screen-sharing—so we set aside the deck and simply covered the material in that online environment through virtual “face to face” conversations that pretty much replicated the spirit of what we had achieved a few weeks earlier in the physical learning space that was our initial meeting place.

Learners had a variety of options available to them because a well-designed infrastructure. They had an online asynchronous meeting place—the Bridge learning management system—where they could easily find materials, updates, and guidance as to what they needed to be doing. They had an easy-to-use online platform for meetings—Zoom. They had a wonderful organizer/liaison/host/–TBLC Manager of Programs and Services Kelly McDonald. They had the opportunity to participate in the live webinars or participate asynchronously by viewing archived recordings of those webinars. And they had access to all PowerPoint slide decks, which included copious speaker notes so they could review topics of special interest to them.   

Because they were engaged in further improving their own training-teaching-learning skills, they also had—and created—ample opportunities to practice what they were learning. While onsite, they engaged in impromptu presentations that helped them experiment with different ways to use their learning spaces. While online, they sometimes became presenters themselves by picking up themes from the typed chat and explaining and exploring those themes with their online collaborators. If there were missed opportunities for engagement, we would be hard-pressed to identify them because we jumped at those opportunities whenever we could.

The series concluded with plans for how that particular community of learning might continue through learner-directed interactions and collaboration; with reminders that the series had formally concluded but the learning would continue as they applied what they had absorbed; and with reminders that taking time to reflect upon our shared experiences would provide an additional platform for gaining all they could from all the effort we all expended together.

Following my own guidance and longtime commitment to reflective learning, I took a few minutes, after logging out of the final session, to reflect on what the time with those learners inspired. And those moments of reflection rekindled memories of previous training-teaching-learning experiences, including one that began more than a decade ago when I had the unexpected pleasure of being paid to attend a TED conference. A friend who owns a bookstore here in San Francisco was the official onsite bookseller for the conference, and he offered me a last-minute chance to attend the conference as one of his employees in the bookstore. It was every bit as fun and inspirational as I expected it to be, and there was the obvious thrill of watching that spectacular live feed of TED talks on a screen in the bookstore and chatting with some of the presenters as they wandered through onsite bookstore.


One of the more memorable encounters was a brief face-to-face conversation with Matt Harding, who at the time was receiving tremendous, well-deserved attention and praise for his “Where the Hell is Matt?” videos showing him doing a brief, playful dance with volunteers in settings all over the world. (A video available online shows him explaining how he created his work.) I loved Matt. I loved the videos. And I loved the sheer joy that flowed through his work.


A year or two later, working with a training partner on a series of classes and workshops on a challenging topic, I was looking for a playful way to end one of the most difficult hour-long workshops, so suggested to my partner that we end that session with a “victory dance”–which, of course, involved showing one of Matt’s videos to the learners as a way of leaving them smiling.

We had no idea whether it would be successful, but we tried it. And we knew it had worked when, at the end of a subsequent workshop (the following day), someone smiled and said, “What? No victory dance today?”


I still love those videos. I still return to them occasionally. When I want to smile. Or when I want to celebrate something that has just occurred. And so, after facilitating the final webinar in the four-part blended (partially onsite, partially online) set of Train-the-Trainer sessions for the Tampa Bay Library Consortium earlier today, I decided to celebrate in private by watching a Where the Hell Is Matt? video and do a virtual victory dance to celebrate the successful conclusion of the latest successful collaboration with the learners who continually enrich my life in ways that surpass anything I will ever be able to offer them. And at the end of all of this, I’m left with one of the best suggestions I can offer to any training-teaching-learning colleague: let’s dance.

–N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: The Caffè Is Open, the Learning Continues

May 1, 2020

I engaged in what I’m going to call a “not-so-guilty pleasure” this morning: I joined approximately 30 colleagues for coffee and conversation in an intimate, wonderfully welcoming caffè while attempting to follow shelter-in-place guidelines which remain in effect for many of us in response to the coronavirus pandemic and which may last for at least another month. I have to admit that I had begun to forget the pleasures of walking into a coffee shop that serves as a community meeting place—Ray Oldenburg’s Third Place. Hearing inviting music in the background. Looking around to see familiar faces. Grabbing a cup of coffee. Sitting face-to-face with inspiring friends/colleagues who form the heart and soul of a tremendous community of learning. And discovering, once again, the hidden gems that/who are within that community, just waiting to be discovered.

We met. We talked. We laughed. We learned. And we adhered to the best, most stringent social-distancing practices possible. Because writer-trainer-presenter Joshua Fredenburg, the person at the center of that “Virtual TD [Training & Development] Talks” gathering of ATD [Association for Talent Development] South Florida Chapter members, created the feeling of a face-to-face caffè gathering online through a combination of creative use of Zoom, his first-rate presentation and facilitation skills, and his commitment to fostering a conversation rather than placing himself at the center of a stage in a virtual learning space. This was a virtual caffè extending from South Florida all the way to where I was sitting, in San Francisco—a 3,000-mile wide caffè which managed to feel as small, intimate, and welcoming as any caffè, virtual or otherwise, that I have ever entered. We could see each other. We could hear each other. And we could even pass virtual notes under the virtual tables via the chat function within Zoom.

ATD South Florida Chapter leaders deserve a lot of credit here. For effectively and positively responding to shelter-in-place and the potential disruption of our community. For quickly and creatively organizing and hosting a dynamic, flexible, informal set of online gatherings. For providing ample opportunities for interactions, during these sessions, that create a sense of presence (telepresence) through brief (45-minute) online sessions. And for making us aware of the “hidden gems” like Fredenburg who routinely draw praise for the way they operate at the national level while those of us “at home” remain (tragically) unaware that we have people like that nearby—until our Chapter brings us together.

And presenters like Fredenburg deserve a lot of credit for creatively and positively exploiting the possibilities created by the online TD Virtual Talks format. When I logged into the online session this morning, I expected to be joining a presentation on and conversation about “Keeping Yourself and Team of Remote Workers Engaged & Productive During COVID-19.” And I certainly wasn’t disappointed; Fredenburg’s expertise and excitement about best practices in leadership was on display and fully engaging from start to finish. But, as so often happens, there was as much to learn from a colleague’s—Fredenburg’s—presentation/facilitation style as there was to learn from the content he was sharing.

Joining the session approximately 10 minutes before it was scheduled to formally begin—I always like getting my coffee and getting settled before caffè conversations, onsite or virtual, are fully underway—I was pleasantly surprised to see Fredenburg (whom I had not previously met) using a Zoom virtual background that made it appear that he was sitting in a wonderfully inviting coffee shop. (Presentation Tip #1: Provide plenty of surprises; they can help make a learning session more memorable/effective.) And I was particularly surprised to hear background music exactly as I would hear if I had been walking into a physical coffee shop. (Presentation Tip #2: Create an inviting learning space online as well as onsite; it adds to engagement and keeps us alert.) Fredenburg, who usually is suited up and ready to roll for his onsite presentations, was dressed casually—which, of course, added to the informal nature of the caffè conversation he was about to facilitate. (Presentation Tip #3: Details—e.g., what you are wearing, how you “set the space”—can help make or break an online as well as onsite session.) And he, like any good host, immediately reached out to me online with a warm welcome as I virtually entered the room. (Presentation Tip #4: Warm up the online room just as you would warm up an onsite room; create the sense of a virtual lounge or virtual gathering of colleagues around a water cooler to foster social learning.) He, the host (Chapter Director of TD Talks Selen Turner), and I immediately began chatting about how he had created that ambience—using a jury-rigged green screen that allowed him to incorporate the caffè background into his teaching-training-learning space, and having music from a YouTube video audible in the background. (Presentation Tip #5: Make every moment a learning moment—without making learning in any way seem like a chore. It’s all about being ready to engage learners in terms of what they want to learn as much as it’s about making sure you foster learning that the session is designed to nurture.)

There was plenty to learn and admire from the session. And much of it revolved around the way that Fredenburg treated everyone as co-conspirators in learning. The result was another spectacular example of turning-challenge-into-opportunity. Community members supporting community members in time of need. Colleagues supporting colleagues by simply doing what they/we do best: working with what we are given. Learning from each other. And remaining committed to, as ATD so often suggests, making a world that works better. Because we can. And because we will.

–N.B.: This is the seventh in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


Learning With Our Learners: Online Master Class

August 15, 2014

The thrill of watching instructors and learners interact in a master class setting—where the master works as a coach, one-on-one, with a highly-developed learner while others observe the process—has struck me as one of the most intimate and rewarding levels of interaction possible between learners and learning facilitators ever since I first observed master classes many years ago at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Learning vicariously from world-renowned musicians as they coached extremely talented music students who performed highly-rehearsed pieces created a combination of excitement, tension, and inclusion for everyone. In the best of circumstances, the master class had a transformative effective on everyone present.

When there is real chemistry between the master and the learner, it’s a beautifully dynamic process to observe. And when arrogance creeps in—as when a learner plays a piece, then the master plays a passage from the same piece and attempts to stimulate conversation by asking, “Why does that sound so much better when I play it than when you do?”—we receive a much-needed reminder that hubris has no place in the learning process (other than to provide examples of what we should never do with our own learners).

SEFLIN_LogoWorking as much online as I do face-to-face these days, I’ve always wondered how an online master class might be designed and delivered. And thanks to colleagues in the Southeast Florida Library Network (SEFLIN), I had a chance to try it out earlier today by conducting an online master class for learners in the four-part “Mastering Online Facilitation” series I have designed and am facilitating for SEFLIN and its Florida-based learners (July 30 – August 22, 2014).

It was even more exciting and rewarding than I had hoped it would be.

Synchronous_Trainers_Survival_Guide

Wonderful resource for online facilitators

The set-up was as simple as we could possibly make it. Interested learners, who have been exploring various parts of the design and delivery process for facilitating webinars and online meetings, were invited to submit a brief PowerPoint slide deck that they would use as the basis for a five- to 10-minute live, online presentation, or exercise in facilitating meetings. The very small group of us participating in the experiment arrived online 15 minutes before the master class was scheduled to formally begin; that gave us time to engage in a brief tech check so that the sole learner scheduled to present could familiarize herself with the various tools within the platform (Adobe Connect) that we were using. That pre-session time provided something far too few of us remember to incorporate into our learning-facilitation space: time for the learner to become familiar with the learning environment before the formal learning experience begins. More importantly, it left us with a brief period of time to further develop the rapport that creates a supportive learning sandbox and eliminates as many distractions as possible so that the real focus is on learning (not the technology behind the learning—that’s a different part of the lesson).

At the scheduled time, we started recording the session so the learner would be able to focus on her presentation and know that she would be able to review the entire session later. As is the case with any successful master class, this one worked well because the learner already had significant, well-developed skills (from the face-to-face presentation and facilitation work she does). It was also helpful that she was using a presentation comprised of content she had already successfully used onsite (i.e., it was well-rehearsed), so she could almost completely focus on how to provide content engagingly in an online environment.

When she was finished, I couldn’t help but blurt out the first thought that came to mind after being drawn into what amounted to an introductory segment to a longer presentation: “Keep going.” (To keep up our comparison to musical master classes, we could refer to her master class performance as the performance of a prelude to a much longer piece of music.)

It took her only a few seconds to realize the not-so-subtle compliment behind the words: she had hit a home run on her first online outing.

Presentation Zen

Great tips for incorporating dynamic visuals into presentations

We then circled back on the presentation at a few levels. I first asked her how she felt about her presentation, and the two of us serving as her audience assured her that her perceptions of being halting and a bit off kilter were far from what we as audience members had experienced. I then walked her through her seven-slide presentation, slide by slide, to comment on what struck me as being strong about the slides and her verbal presentation—stopping at the end of each slide to ask her if she had any additional questions or observations. Our final pass through the slide deck was to discuss possible variations to what she had designed (e.g., using more visual elements and smaller amounts of text, finding creative and subtle ways to highlight parts of text so members of her own audience would be immediately drawn to specific elements on a slide at the moment she was verbally addressing those elements).

What was probably most rewarding for all of us was that the lines between alleged master and wonderful learner, in this case, were extremely permeable. We learned as much from her presentation and her questions as she learned from our reactions (and I learned even more when I went back to the recording myself to see how I could improve my own skills at facilitating master classes); we were not telling her how she should have designed and presented her information, we offered variations on her theme and left it to her to decide what she believed will best work for her own learners when she takes that presentation back to them; and we all understood that for every moment we spend in and benefit from occupying the master’s seat onsite or online, we benefit so much more by sharing all the learning that has shaped us—and will continue to shape us—in our own lifelong-learning efforts.


ALA Annual Conference 2013: Presentation Pain and Pleasure (Tips for Presenters)

July 3, 2013

Those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning are always on the prowl for ways to improve our presentation skills, so attending gatherings like the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference here in Chicago for the past several days has given us the equivalent of a presenter’s master class.

There were quite literally moments when we found ourselves exclaiming “I wish I had done that.” There were also those painful moments when we watched someone else falling into a presentation trap we wish we had avoided.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)One of the most exquisite learning moments for me came as I was sitting with ALA Learning Round Table colleagues at one of their conference board meetings. The conversation centered around the question of whether the group should incur the cost of having a microphone for a presenter at a small event at an upcoming conference. I halfway—but only halfway—jokingly suggested that anyone who needed a microphone for that event in that small venue probably wasn’t the right presenter for the session.

ALA_Learning_Round-Table_LogoAnd that’s when a lovely colleague, with absolutely no rancor in her voice, said that although she knows many presenters believe they don’t need microphones to be heard, those presenters are inadvertently excluding members of their audience who are hearing-impaired—as she is. It was a humbling yet wonderfully instructive moment for any of us who let our egos get in the way of our goal of making it easy for every learner to participate in the learning opportunities we have agreed to provide—particularly those of us doltish enough to have never been aware of how effectively some of our longtime colleagues deal with challenges we never noticed they faced. Her comment was instructive—and inspirational. I immediately moved into full trainer-teacher-learner mode, documented that presentation tip, and tweeted it out to the conference backchannel as well as to colleagues across the country in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) in the hope that a few more learners will benefit from our colleague’s suggestion.

Not so easy to share in the moment were the examples of poor preparation or presentation techniques that plagued colleagues at some of the sessions I attended—just as these same problems, somewhat surprisingly, plague some ASTD conference presenters even though we work in a profession where first-rate communication skills are essential. To have pointed those problems out via Twitter at the time they were happening would have tantamount to publicly humiliating the presenters—and I’m sorry to say that there actually were people on the conference backchannel who engaged in exactly that sort of cruel and unnecessary behavior. But I think it’s fair game, long after the presentations have ended and there is no obvious need to identify individuals under discussion, to offer yet another brief presenter’s tip sheet for anyone who wants to avoid the sort of presentation mistakes all of us have made—and wished we hadn’t.

We all learn the hard way that we need to plan, practice, revise, plan, practice, revise, and plan some more in the weeks and days leading up to our presentation. This will keep us from finding that parts of slides or entire slides have somehow disappeared from our PowerPoint slide decks when we’re in front of our audience.

It’s also very important to be in the space where we are presenting at least 30 minutes before we begin our presentation so we can be sure, by viewing the slides on the screen in that space, that any tech gremlins that have crept into our slides can be adjusted. That prevents us from finding that columns of text have shifted (which raises the question of why we’re even bombarding our learners with columns of text) and become an indecipherable jumble of words.

Being in the room before others arrive also allows for a final sound check of the microphone—and remember, we do want a microphone even if we think we won’t need one. Checking links to onsite resources we plan to use will prevent us from wasting five or ten minutes struggling to bring up a video or other online resource when we actually should be engaging with our audience during our formal presentation time. And being present as others arrive also offers the invaluable opportunity to begin connecting with the learners before the formal presentation begins and to be sure that their expectations for the session are what we are planning to deliver.

Avoiding references to how we have had to condense hour-long/day-long presentations into the much shorter period of time we have during the session we are currently delivering accomplishes nothing other than making us sound ungrateful and adding a bit of stress to learners who feel as if they are going to have to be extra attentive if they want to absorb this condensed version of what we wanted to offer. We knew, when we accepted the gift of being able to share information and resources with colleagues, how much time we had. It’s just plain polite to publicly thank those who brought us into that learning space and to effectively use the time we have rather than wasting any of it apologizing or grousing about the lack of time to do our subject—and our audience—justice.

Using slides that interact with and support our oral presentation rather than including the history of the world on a single slide keeps our presentations engaging rather than turning them into frustrating, overwhelming experiences during which audience members are forced to unsuccessfully try reading all that text while also trying to take in what we are saying. And we certainly don’t want to read content on the slides to our learners; we can safely assume they already know how to read, so if we want them to absorb content, we can join them in looking at the slide and giving ourselves enough time to read a line or two (e.g., an appropriate quote from someone who said it better than we ever will be able to say it), and we can use those slides to provide engaging images designed to help learners absorb key points.

Answering questions immediately rather than trying to postpone responses demonstrates that we care about our audience’s learning needs. There’s no reason why we can’t provide a one-line response—if we have one—and then return to our planned presentation after assuring learners that a longer explanation is on its way later in the presentation if that’s the case. We can also provide that one-line response and encourage interested audience members to join us after the session or contact us later via email to further explore the topic. Asking audience members to hold all questions until we are finished speaking implies that our content is more important than their questions are—not particularly the message we want to send to people who were nice enough to choose to spend their extremely limited and valuable time with us.

If we see our presentation/learning-facilitation opportunities as a collaboration with those who have agreed to spend time with us, we’re well on the way to providing the sort of transformative experiences that are at the heart of successful training-teaching-learning. And, not so surprisingly, we may even have the rewarding experiences of being asked to present again or to hear, years later, from those who learned from us, applied what we offered, and sought us out to thank us for offering them something of value.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Addressing the Couch in the Middle of the Room

June 25, 2012

A colleague entering the room where Sharon Morris and I were facilitating the ALA Learning Round Table’s “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Learning Outcome” session yesterday here in Anaheim at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference admits to being momentarily confused.

“I didn’t remember ordering a couch,” she said when she joined the session in progress.

And I have to admit that we didn’t, either—at least not directly. For when we started the session, it had the typical session room set-up. Round tables surrounded by chairs. Lectern with microphone. A couple of tables with chairs for presenters and panelists. A projector throwing PowerPoint slides onto a large screen in one corner of the room. And the usual drab/neutral walls.

But we quickly changed all that by projecting a Twitter feed onto the screen via TweetChat during parts of the session and beginning the workshop with a wonderful presentation/learning technique I acquired from writer-trainer-consultant Peter Block’s presentation at the 2008 ASTD International Conference & Exposition in San Diego: we encouraged “Engage” participants to take two minutes at the beginning of the session to reset the room in any way that would create a space conducive to their own leaning experience. The we added to Block’s exercise by inviting them to use simple supplies we had provided—clay, construction paper, colored clay, and a few other items—to decorate the room in a way that served the same purpose. And even I, after running variations of this particular learning exercise, was astonished when a few participants carried “resetting the room” to a wonderful extreme I’d never before encountered: they stepped outside, snagged a small couch from a corridor, and brought it into the room for themselves.

As we moved through the session, we left plenty of time for learners to practice what Sharon and I were sharing with them about various styles of presentation: lecturing/telling, storytelling/sharing knowledge, inquiring/reflecting, experiencing—lots of that with this group—and creating/developing something as we did by developing a comfortably appropriate learning space for the duration of the session. We also brought blended (onsite-online) learning into the picture by explaining how many trainer-teacher-learners are using Twitter and other social media tools to connect on learners within a learning space—a fourth place, or social learning center—with learners not physically present, yet capable of engaging in what is being accomplished.

Attendees clearly absorbed and responded to ideas about incorporating an opening exercise and improvisation into learning. When someone mentioned how we often avoid the most difficult and obvious of challenges—in essence, ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room—we even suggested that we had a perfect moment to change our own clichés by agreeing to “address the couch in the middle of the room.” And then we used Twitter to share, with other conference attendees, the idea that we need to begin addressing the couch in the middle of the room.

As we brought that very lively session to a conclusion, we reminded each other of the need to carry learning back to workplace settings where what was learned is actually used rather than lost—not wanting to be among that 70 percent of learners who never even try applying what they’ve learned. And you probably know what happened next: when we asked how participants would apply what they had learned, everyone stood up and engaged in a very spirited chanting of what had become the session mantra—“We won’t be part of the 70 percent.”

Late in the afternoon, I finally had time to go back to the Twitter feed (#ala12soclearn, for ALA 2012 Annual Conference Social Learning; parts of it remain available as posts on June 24, 2012 at @trainersleaders). It was very encouraging to see how effectively the session participants had engaged with the material and with each other. And I had a confirmation that we still have a long way to go in Library Land in terms of how we incorporate Twitter and other social media tools into our daily work this morning: a conference attendee used the Twitter conference backchannel (#ala12) to note that someone had shouted at him for using Twitter at the conference. I hope that he and others will join us in whatever post-session conversation continues at #ala12soclearn. And that we’ll all remain ignited and engaged as we return to our workplace learning and performance (staff training) spaces.

N.B.: The PowerPoint slides and speaker notes for the presentation are available on SlideShare.


ASTD International Conference 2012: Cliff Atkinson, the Backchannel, and Many Happy Returns

May 18, 2012

I already had quite a few friends and colleagues in the world of training-teaching-learning a couple of weeks ago. Now the social fabric that sustains me has grown quite substantially. Let’s credit the backchannel for this change. Then think about what that backchannel could mean to you and all you serve.

Seeing dynamically interactive online extensions of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2012 International Conference & Exposition Twitter backchannel in the week since the conference ended provides all of us with yet another example of how blended the world has become for trainer-teacher-learners. How quickly we are informally and quite naturally developing the sort of blended onsite-online social learning center/fourth places colleagues and I have been exploring. And how the interactions we have at conferences no longer start and end with physical onsite arrivals and departure.

As is the case with any form of effective training-teaching-learning, those conference interactions flourish through planning before the learning event/conference begins (someone has to create the Twitter hashtag that draws us all together); active participation during the event (the more you give, the more you receive); and sustainable long-term attention that continues far beyond the days a learning opportunity/conference brings us all together (following and contributing to the backchannel after the conference ends keeps this virtual social learning center alive and vibrant).

And discovering Cliff Atkinson’s The Backchannel: How Audiences Are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever as I was beginning to resurface a bit from the ASTD conference backchannel (#ASTD2012) a few days ago tells me that the best is yet to come in terms of where backchannels deliver on the promises they are offering.

An effective backchannel, as I wrote in an earlier article, works at many levels. It connects those who might otherwise be separated by the smallest as well as the largest of physical distances. It fosters a form of  mobile learning (m-learning) in that what we’re learning is disseminated to an even larger group of learners. It is increasingly providing a delightfully accessible tool that can as easily facilitate and augment the learning process in academic settings as it can in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors.

On the other hand, it carries the potential to completely disrupt a presenter-teacher-trainer’s presentation. This is where Atkinson’s book on the backchannel comes into play invaluably. A guide every bit as appealing and potentially influential in the world of backchannel learning as his Beyond Bullet Points remains for onsite-online presentations, The Backchannel entices us into the subject immediately through a chapter carrying the title “Why Are You Calling Me a #@*% on Twitter?” and helps us see how a tweeter with a large following (nearly 15,000 people as I’m writing this) and a well-known presenter clashed quite publicly when the presenter saw the tweeter’s note with her derogatory remark about him. (For the record, she called him “a total dick,” and he decided to confront her face-to-face, while the presentation was still underway, by asking “What…what is my dickiness?”)

If you already sense that Atkinson’s mastery of storytelling and training is a wonderful talent to see in action, you’re well on the way to understanding that his book has something for each of us regardless of whether we’re new to the backchannel or already fairly comfortable in that rapidly-flowing stream of words and thoughts and resources. He shows us how to join a backchannel. Entertainingly reviews the rewards and risks of backchannel engagement with copious amounts of screenshots to lead us down that path. Offers presentation tips to make us more effective in our use of Twitter and its backchannels. And leads us through the process of effectively dealing with those dreaded-yet-inevitable moments when a backchannel becomes dangerous.

By the time we finish racing through this book and absorbing what we can—I suspect I’ll be rereading this one at least a few times— we’re far more comfortable with and appreciative of all that backchannels offer, and much more aware of how to be effective and civil members of the Twitterverse and its various interconnected streams. We’re richer for having explored and reflected upon the online resources supporting the book, e.g., his “Negotiating a Backchannel Agreement.” And we’re appreciative for what our own levels of involvement in backchannels returns to us.

Through the #ASTD2012 backchannel and subsequent online interactions including the #lrnchat session on May 17, 2012 , I came away from a conference with 9,000 attendees much richer at a deeply personal and professional level than I was two weeks ago. Through their confrontation and subsequent discussion, the tweeter and the presenter in Atkinson’s book walked away with their differences resolved. And you—yes, you—may end up finding your own rewards and satisfactions there the moment you are prepared to take the plunge into the backchannel/The Backchannel.


Presentation Skills: TED, Jonathan Haidt, and the Grand Finale

March 27, 2012

Trainer-teacher-learners watching psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s newly-posted TED talk can learn a lot about expectations, delivery, and audience engagement. Agreeing to speak publically on the topic of “Religion, Evolution, and the Ecstasy of Self-transcendence,” Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis, certainly creates high expectations and the likelihood of conflict. In our emotionally-charged times, even a discussion about whether to discuss religion publically can make participants uncomfortable, as evidenced by an unrelated LinkedIn discussion thread several months ago.

Yet there he is, moving gently, firmly, and engagingly forward in that challenging 18-minute talk that has already attracted more than 300,000 viewings and more than 350 comments online in less than two weeks—with the not-unexpected range of support and opposition that the topic could be expected to inspire.

For those of us intrigued by how presenters effectively reach us, there’s even more to consider once we have absorbed the content of his talk. Haidt’s presentation appears to be very much of and from the heart, delivered in that high-quality way that is the hallmark of the great TED (technology, entertainment, and design) talks. You can see him gauging and connecting with at least some of his audience when he uses the standard presentation technique of asking for a show of hands in response to questions he asks at the beginning of the session. He continues to use his voice in a way that is appropriate to his topic and his audience: calm, collected, yet far from unemotional. He incorporates visually stimulating imagery into the talk through static as well as animated slides.

Then he turns everything on its head.

At precisely the moment in which we believe he is winding down, he goes for the clincher reversal—the one that transforms an intriguing talk into something highly memorable. When it appears that he is about to end his session three minutes early, he surprises us with the following comment: “So, that was my talk, delivered in the standard TED way. And now I’m going to give the talk all over again, in three minutes, in a more full-spectrum sort of way.”

Before we can catch our breath or even spend a few seconds absorbing what he has just said, we’re back in the thick of things—but in an entirely new way that sucks us in and doesn’t let us go until he once again is finished. This is far more than a presenter’s standard recap via an oral repetition of key points. Or the ritual reading of notes from a flipchart or bullet points on a slide. Or checklists of key points on a handout. Or tossing a ball around the room and asking learners to recall something they learned from the session we just finished leading.

None of us may ever again be able to use any of those instantly antiquated trainer tricks once we’ve seen Haidt’s full-spectrum format.   He propels us into that three-minute version—as compellingly and excitingly as we’re drawn into a roller coaster ride in an amusement park—by completely integrating the new abbreviated version of his talk into a video playing on a screen behind and above him on the stage. Combining re-edited images drawn from the earlier part of his talk into the lively video format, he uses each image—displayed as a series of quick-cut shots interspersed with new images—to effectively trigger memories of entire segments of his initial talk in the second or two it takes for us to re-view each image. And, by adding unobtrusive yet lively music into the soundtrack, he appeals to that part of our brain that more effectively learns by having multiple forms of complementary stimulation as we are taking in information.

It is at once familiar. Unexpected. Dynamic. Intriguing. And exciting. More importantly, it works. It makes us more deeply assimilate all he has proposed, and he certainly wakes up anyone who was not already fully awake. Furthermore, he alerts those of us attentive to creative presentation techniques that this simple unexpected act of giving an abbreviated talk within the context of a somewhat longer talk is an ingenious and effective way to draw an audience into a presentation in a stimulating and pleasurable way—one that is guaranteed to leave audience members/learners with a highly memorable experience. Which is exactly what we hope to achieve each time we play that honored and honorable role of facilitating someone else’s learning process.


Presentations on Presentations: Levels of Engagement

February 14, 2012

Given the strong belief that a fear of public speaking is the greatest fear most people have, it’s probably no surprise that we’re surrounded by presentations on presentations. Or that we can’t seem to be around our training-teaching-learning colleagues without finding ourselves engaged in conversations on the topic.

Looking at upcoming events for members of American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) chapters recently, even I was surprised to see how many, without formally coordinating their efforts, had scheduled keynote addresses on presentation skills and how to engage learners. (I’ll be attending one with ASTD Mount Diablo colleagues later this month, and just missed one at the ASTD South Florida Chapter earlier this month.)

Diving into a live online discussion with colleagues on Maurice Coleman’s latest T is for Training podcast late last week brought the topic to center stage again as we spent most of our time together talking about the challenges of writing training materials for other trainers. And during the discussion, a colleague mentioned a newly-posted and completely fascinating TED talk, by Nancy Duarte, on the structure of highly effective speeches (Steve Job’s introduction of the iPhone, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

All of this comes right at a time when I had the great good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Jerry Weissman, one of the most highly respected presentation coaches in the corporate world, and author of several books including Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story.

You have to be good if you’re going to sell more than 100,000 copies of a book about how to be a better presenter. Jerry Weissman is good. And he gets to the heart of great presentation skills by reminding us, throughout this wonderfully engaging book, of the importance of story if we want to hold the attention of audiences at a time when attention spans are as ephemeral as yesterday’s tweets.

Whether we’re new to the art of presentation or are experienced presenter-trainer-teachers benefitting from the useful reminders Weissman provides, he carries us through the presentation cycle with lots of guidance, including warnings of how we can go wrong: not offering clear points, not offering a clear benefit to our audiences (what’s in it for them, not us), not creating a clear flow of thought and information in our work, offering more details than an audience can absorb, or creating presentations that last too long.

He also offers the structure that telling a good story provides: taking listeners from where they are (Point A) to where they need to be (Point B) in ways that focus on them rather than on us. He provides a concise survey of structures we can incorporate into presentations to make them flow and reminds us of the importance of “verbalization”—rehearsing our work out loud “just as you will on the day of your actual presentation” (p. 164) numerous times so that the story that is at the heart of all we do will flow naturally from us to those who are depending on us to make that all-important journey from Point A to Point B. Furthermore, he models the very skills he is trying to develop by incorporating presentation stories throughout his book in an effort to help us understand the process viscerally as well as intellectually.

It’s often the lines that seem to be most casually tossed off that take us most deeply to the heart of presentation professionalism. Writing about his attendance at investment banking conferences, he tells us that he is there “because they let me observe many presentations in one place, in a short time.” And if someone of his experience and reputation is attending presentations to pick up tips, it makes us ask ourselves why we aren’t equally engaged in seeing what others are doing if we’re at all serious about continually honing our own skills.

There’s no mistaking the seriousness with which Weissman expects and encourages us to approach the art of presentation: “…every presentation is a mission-critical event” (p. 168). With that as our guiding light, we should all be on our way to successful and engaging experiences for those we serve.

We have plenty of great role models out there, including Cliff Atkinson and his Beyond Bullet Points, and Garr Reynolds and his PresentationZen. And we’re all aware of the syndrome known as “Death by PowerPoint”—those dreadfully painful moments when someone fills a slide with incredibly dense blocks of illegible type—and then insists on reading every word of the text as if that somehow is going to engage us in the topic rather than make us wish we were dead.

With so many resources available, we need to remind ourselves that help is on the way. In fact, it’s all around us. If only we’re willing to grab it and run with it.


Garr Reynolds and the Zen of Engaging Presentations

July 19, 2011

In a world committed to effective training-teaching-learning, publication of Garr Reynolds’ beautifully produced and engagingly written book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery three years ago would have resulted in the disappearance of “death by PowerPoint.”

The world seems to have other ideas. We still suffer through poorly designed PowerPoint presentations, where far too much text is crammed onto slides that are then read to painfully bored and tuned-out learners. Which is a shame since so much of what Reynolds suggests and displays throughout his book and on his ongoing Presentation Zen website makes so much sense and is so easy to incorporate into our work.

PowerPoint…is not a method,” he reminds us early in the book; “it is a tool that can be used effectively with appropriate design methods or ineffectively with inappropriate methods” (p. 12).

And as we all know from those ineffectively designed slides delivered in inappropriate ways, we still have a long way to go before we overcome our kneejerk horror at the thought of sitting through even one more PowerPoint presentation that is less than completely engaging and inspiring.

Where Reynolds is most effective is in having produced a book that practices what he preaches: it’s clearly written, engagingly incorporates clean design and strong visual imagery to produce a cohesive work on the art of presentation, and cleverly wraps in upon itself by offering suggestions that are on display throughout the book for readers astute enough to watch for them.

Approximately halfway through the book, for example, he suggests the effectiveness of “chunking”—grouping “similar ideas while looking for a unifying theme. The presentation may be organized into three parts, so first I look for the central theme that will be the thread running through the presentation. There is no rule that says your presentation should have three sections or three ‘acts’ from the world of drama. However, three is a good number to aim for because it is a manageable constraint and generally provides a memorable structure.”

It’s at this point that we notice how Reynolds himself has broken his book into three large interwoven sections—preparation, design, and delivery—and we become even more conscious of how well he uses clean, effective photographs and minimal type in or around those photographs to transfer his ideas from his mind to ours. If we see the book at a variation on the sort of presentation he is encouraging us to produce via PowerPoint, we viscerally understand the wisdom and attractiveness of what he is proposing. And we have to ask why more of us aren’t already doing what he suggests.

There’s nothing fancy here—which is, course, one of the book’s biggest strengths. Clarity and simplicity are the overarching themes he encourages us to explore and incorporate into our work. His brief surveys of a variety of other works including the Heath brothers’ Made to Stick, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and even Brenda Ueland’s classic book on writing, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit and presentation methodologies including PechaKucha keep us focused not only on the creative aspect of what we need to offer as trainer-teacher-learners, but remind us of the importance of creativity and a user-centric viewpoint if we’re going to be effective in our endeavors.

As he leads us toward his final chapters, he reminds us of the potential power of effective presentations at a very human level when he suggests that presentations are contributions: “I don’t think I have ever given a presentation that was not at some level about making a contribution. Certainly, when you are asked to share your expertise with a group who are on the whole not specialists in your field, you have to think very hard about what is important (for them) and what is not (again, for them). It is easier just to do the same presentation you always do, but it is not about impressing people with the depths of your knowledge. It’s about sharing or teaching something of lasting value” (p. 196).

If we needed any further proof that Reynolds cares as deeply about his audiences as we should care about ours, we find it explicitly in his admonition that “If your content is worth talking about, then bring energy and passion to your delivery. Every situation is different, but there is never an excuse for being dull” (p. 211).

Reading—and rereading—Presentation Zen leaves us with plenty of inspiration. And examples. And encouragement. Perhaps what we most need to do is carry a copy with us whenever we are attending presentations—or offering them ourselves—and simply wave it as an offering to anyone who has not yet moved from death by PowerPoint to life through inspirational—and inspired—presentations.


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